There is no disputing that Actress Naomi Grossman is notably known for her role as Pepper in American Horror Story: Asylum & Freak Show, however, there is a lot more to this talented and versatile actress that goes beyond her most famous role to date.
Grossman took the time to talk with us over at ihorror about it all, including hitting on how it all started for her, her new films Bite Me & IBR, and for all you AHS fans out there, we speak extensively about Pepper. So, kick back, relax and check out our interview below.
Interview With Naomi Grossman
Ryan T. Cusick: How long have you been an actress? How did this all start for you?
Naomi Grossman: Gosh, as a fetus? What comes before that, embryo? Pretty sure I busted out with jazz-hands from my mother’s womb! Ever since I could remember, my parents exposed me to the arts and culture. And while we sat, enjoying the cinema, theatre, ballet, opera, you name it-it took everything within me to stay in my seat and not Rocky Horror-style sing and dance and act right along with them in the aisle! My folks took the hint, and enrolled me in some kids’ creative dramatic classes. The rest is history. From age 11 on, I was performing regularly at the “Comedy Works” in Denver, where I’m from, as well as appearing in regional commercials, and whatever television came through Colorado. Got my SAG card on my 15th birthday! So no one ever really questioned what I’d be when I grew up… They (and I, for that matter) figured that’s what I’d been doing my whole life, so I’d probably just stick with that! And they were right. Now, with social media, we know what our preschool crushes had for breakfast-but even if it weren’t for Mark Zuckerberg, et al, folks would still be able to imagine exactly what I’m up to. I’ve never wavered for a second.
RTC: Did you grow up at all a horror fan?
NG: Well, yes and no. Like I said, my parents had fairly snooty taste-television was considered the “boob tube” and thought to rot the brain! Never mind what sort of damage horror movies might do! (I remember when I was caught watching “Clueless,” I justified it by explaining that it was based on a Jane Austin novel.) Consequently, there are entire periods of pop-culture I missed (though I’m a whiz at random high-art-trivia no else knows). So, I had to binge most of my horror while away at slumber parties! I do recall liking it, but mostly because it was so forbidden! Even now, I’m not a blanket-fan of all things horror, necessarily. I like high-drama, and larger-than-life characters, which horror trends to have! I just like my stories well-told -the genre is actually irrelevant.
RTC: If you had to choose your favorite role, what would it be?
NG: Well, no question Pepper’s been very good to me! What started as a little-costar-that-could, practically turned into a whole cottage industry, complete with action figures, Halloween masks, fan tattoos, you name it. And to think I thought it’d be some glorified extra-role! So, given how far it’s exceeded my expectations, it’s a pinhead, no-brainer: Pepper 100%. Although I stand by the fact that writing/producing/performing my own solo shows has been the most fulfilling. I trekked, uphill both ways, in the pouring rain, with a backpack full of dildos, to do my show for 40 or so drunken Scotsmen at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, every night for a month. If you STILL love a role after that, then bless your little artist’s heart!
RTC: I have to ask, what’s your favorite scary movie?
NG: Probably “Rosemary’s Baby?” I like that it’s female-driven, and the horror is not overt, but rather sneaks up on you! Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange” and “The Shining” are a close second, followed by Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and “Vertigo,” just for nostalgia’s sake. In researching Pepper, I came upon Lon Chaney’s “The Unknown,” which, if you know the story, is pretty O.G.! More recently (“The Unknown” dates back to 1927), I enjoyed the Spanish film, “The Orphanage,” and found-footage films, like “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity.” So, I have pretty electric taste! I do believe less is more, so I’m big on suspense and bumps in the night, and less into graphic gore.
RTC: Did you do anything to prepare for your role as Pepper in “American Horror Story: Freak Show?”
NG: Yes, of course. I rented Tod Browning’s “Freaks” all summer long, and pretty much watched it on a loop till we started filming—the idea being that I would emulate its star, “Schlitzie,” who was the real-life microcephalic after which the Pepper character was modeled. Up until that point, I’d been mostly immersed in sketch comedy, and yet I wanted my depiction to appear real, not like some caricature from SNL. So I did a fair amount of research on microcephaly. Once I’d really mastered Pepper physically (walk, talk, gestures, mannerisms), I worked with an acting coach to find her internally. Together we established a whole, inner backstory. Little did we know, 2 seasons later, there’d be an ACTUAL backstory, generously bestowed upon me by the writers! But that’s neither here nor there. What’s important is that each character HAVE a backstory—whether or not the audience knows what that is, is inconsequential.
RTC: What was the most rewarding & difficult parts about playing Pepper?
NG: The most rewarding was the tremendous liberty I was given as an actor. From day 1, all I ever got were 2 words of direction: “do Schlitzie.” Just 2 words, yet that was enough! So long as I was doing that, I knew I was doing what was hired of me. The fact that they just trusted me to occupy this character, and essentially improvise, without in the least bit micromanagement was incredibly rewarding. The most difficult part was not knowing. I didn’t know Salty was my husband until the night before we started shooting the “Orphans” episode! I just always assumed he was my twin. In episode 1 of “Asylum,” when Sister Mary Eunice says I cut my sister’s baby’s ear off, I just assumed I had! Because again, I didn’t know otherwise. So I gave this little mischievous grin, like “maybe I did, maybe I didn’t” as not to forecast anything. During “Asylum,” I only got the pages I was in, so I didn’t know what was going on half the time. Script says, “Pepper goes pee.” So, I guess I go pee! It wasn’t until “Freak Show” that I was provided full-scripts. So I was having to make a ton of assumptions about my character, relationships, storyline, you name it. It all worked out, but required a lot of trust, which is never easy.
RTC: Can you explain the process of transformation into Pepper? What were your thoughts the first time you saw yourself as Pepper?
NG: Sure. It consisted of a prosthetic nose, brow, and ears, which were all made beforehand to fit my face, then glued down and painted. I had a wonky, contact lens, and of course, they shaved my head (the top-notch was my own thing during “Asylum,” whereas they gave me a piece for “Freak Show”). I had those giant man-hands, and even a prosthetic chest, which I wore for the homemade porno we shot in episode 1 of “Freak Show.” Altogether, it took about 2.5-3 hours to make me up as Pepper. And that was whittled down! The original makeup tests were upwards of 6 hours-and that’s with 2 multiple Emmy-winning makeup artists splitting me down the middle!
I do remember that first time, seeing myself. I was like, “what the… ?” But I was psyched! Why limit yourself to a short career as the pretty princess, when you can have longevity as the hideous, wart-nosed witch?! I’ve always been very realistic when it comes to casting, I knew I’d never be cast for my beauty. Not that I’m so hideous. But if you want to find a beauty-queen in Hollywood, you can throw a rock and hit one. Whereas I’ve always known I had something very different and special to offer.
RTC: You have a new film available on VOD called, “Bite Me.” The film is a Romantic Comedy; however, the plot of this film has a very small stitch of horror to it. Naomi, can you tell us about this film and your character Chrissy?
NG: It’s basically a love story between a real-life vampire and the IRS agent that audits her. (‘Real-life” meaning one who derives energy from drinking blood, not speaking in Shakespearean tongue, nor wearing ruffles and corsets.) My character, Chrissy, is the firebrand leader of the vampire clique. She’s justifiably skeptical of the relationship… Vampires don’t date “mundanes.” It’s a cute, classic, fish-out-of-water rom-com.
RTC: You were involved in a Horror-Thriller “1BR” and this film recently premiered at the Fantasia Film Festival and has received rave reviews across the board. I saw the trailer and the film looks absolutely bonkers! Can you tell us about the film and your character Janice?
NG: It IS bonkers! It’s about a young, Hollywood-hopeful, who moves to town into what appears to be her dream, 1 bedroom-apartment, only to find out it’s run by a cult. I play the cult leader’s wife. It’s a small part, yet the cult is obviously essential to the story! It’s ultimately an ensemble piece, of which I’m proud to be a part!
RTC: Over the years you’ve acted in every major genre which is amazing! Do you prefer a particular genre over another?
NG: Interesting enough, it is changing! I used to be of the opinion that this business was so competitive, you really had to find your niche, and hone just that. So I chose sketch comedy. My dream was always to be on SNL, as the next gen-Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett, Tracy Ulman, or Gilda Radner. While those are all fine touchstones to have, I now realize how myopic that was… Instead of limiting myself to sketch comedy, I should’ve thought about what it was about sketch comedy that attracted me, and done that! The answer, of course, was big characters, which, lucky for me, exist in EVERY genre! Let’s face it, a character like Pepper could totally exist in the SNL universe! Right up there with Pat, Gilly, and the rest of them! Yet you dial her down a few notches, and turn up the dramatic circumstances in which she exists, she makes or one of the saddest characters in all of AHS! So anyone, I prefer not to limit myself. While my all-time favorite film will always and forever be “Borat,” these days, I’m passing on broad comedy for more grounded, subtle, serious stuff. I figure we’re artists, constantly growing and staying truthful to our own artistic integrity. You can’t blame Picasso for ditching his Blue Period for Cubism! Thank goodness he did—now we have Cubism! Not that I think I’m Picasso, but you get the idea.
RTC: I see that you have written an array of shorts, do you plan on writing any feature films or any aspirations of becoming more involved behind the camera, such as directing?
NG: Not really. Those shorts were just a means to an end. I wasn’t being cast by traditional means, so I cast myself! Directing doesn’t really appeal, though I have been told I’m better writer than actor! (How’s that for an underhanded compliment?) But seriously, I love writing and agree I have a distinctive voice, and lots to say! So I’m working on finishing up my third solo show now. I like to think of it as my secret weapon—something Pepper fans don’t necessarily know about me! Ideally, it’ll appear on Broadway, and/or as a Netflix comedy special. But that’s the extent of my off-camera plans.
RTC: Do you have any funny or memorable moments that you could share with us from one of your films or television shows? Or better yet-something creepy?
NG: I have so many! From those first couple months wearing a wig, unable to tell people-particularly guys I was dating-why I’d suddenly forsaken my conservative bob for a crazy, Hare Krishna, top-notch! Or being transported to set in a burka, in case anyone touring the Paramount lot at the time tried to snap a pic! Or being stopped by security while grazing craft services after I was out of makeup—they claimed it was “for cast and crew only,” not realizing I was one of them! I remember how oddly the crew behaved towards me as Pepper—at first, they didn’t want to make eye-contact, then it was as if I became the set-mascot! I’ll never forget shooting “The Name Game;” the A.D. called out over the megaphone, “everyone can go bigger, except Pepper.” Or that time they did me up onstage during a makeup demo at Monsterpalooza; afterwards, I stormed the comic con floor! “Asylum” had only aired once at that point, so only a limited few even knew what they were witnessing. (You can actually watch it all on YouTube!) Afterwards, I had a couple hours to kill (as Pepper) before my evening, Halloween plans… I’m proud so say I remained well-behaved, but you can imagine the mischief I might’ve had! Speaking of which, you had to be there with me and the freaks on our days off at the clothing-optional country club in New Orleans! Needless to say, I have plenty of memorable moments. I could go on and on…
RTC: What’s next in the pipeline for you?
NG: Great question! Once I wrap something, I tend to forget all about it… I figure it’s out of my hands, so best to move on. Then, I’m (hopefully, pleasantly) surprise when it eventually comes out. Come to think of it, I’m actually due for several surprises! I’m anxious to see what happens with “1BR,” and some of these other films I’ve done recently—how they fare on the festival circuit, and whether they get theatrical distribution, or go straight to video. At the very least, I will have shown the world new sides of me, in different genres and ways they’ve never seen me before! And well, work begets work! So I can only imagine what all that will lead to… All the while, I’m preparing that new, secret weapon-solo show! So, who knows? Your best bet is just to follow my socials! 😉 @naomiwgrossman
RTC: Thank you very much, Naomi, it was a such a pleasure!